The big news over the weekend was that the newly formed National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) sent out a press release saying that the conference will choose to stay at the current number of eight teams. This effectively ends the possibility of Notre Dame joining the conference, leaving the Irish with only one real option: joining Hockey East for the 2013-14 season.
Notre Dame reportedly was leaning towards joining the more geographically-suitable NCHC, but couldn't come to terms with the conference on any television deal. And supposedly the Irish's NCHC invite came with an expiration date that Notre Dame let slip.
The South Bend Tribune reported that associate AD Tom Nevala said a formal announcement could come on Wednesday, which means maybe by the end of this year.
Notre Dame joining Hockey East opens the door for Bertagna to expand the conference to an even dozen, as the conference's preference is to keep HEA at an even number of teams. So who joins the Irish as lucky team #12?
Here's a rundown of five possible additions, in no particular order.
Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute Engineers
The early front-runner for HEA #12 appears to be the RPI Engineers, though I'm not really sure why. RPI boasts a rabid college hockey fan base and a pair of National Championships (1954, 1985), but not much else. RPI was invited to join Hockey East twice previously, but declined both times.
Pros: Program with a lot of history, including two National titles, extends the HEA footprint into upstate New York
Cons: Small enrollment (would be 10th largest in HEA), arena on the small size (would be 9th largest in HEA), participates at the Division III level for 21 / 23 sports, not an all-that-attractive market
The UConn women's program is already a member of Hockey East, so this would seem to make for an easy transition to the conference. The big sticking point is the current UConn men's program is woefully under invested, and there's no telling whether the school would consider raising the funds necessary to compete at the HEA level with a full compliment of scholarships and an upgraded facility
Pros: Better fit geographically, school is committed to fielding competitive D-I athletics programs, women already in HEA, get to kick around UConn in another sport
Cons: This program is currently a terrible Atlantic Hockey program and would take a long time to become competitive in HEA (think: worse than the last 10 years of Providence hockey), dealing with obnoxious nouveau riche UConn fans in another sport
Holy Cross Crusaders
Again, probably a pipe dream, but if the Holy Cross administration wanted to prioritize winning sports programs again, it would be great to see the Crusaders-Eagles rivalry get rekindled on the ice. Between BC, Merrimack, Providence, Notre Dame and Holy Cross, HEA would be full up on Catholic colleges fielding men's varsity hockey programs.
Pros: Adds a regional, Jesuit rival to the league, one located just 40 miles from Chestnut Hill, extreme geographic fit, similar institution to BC, MC, PC and Notre Dame
Cons: Just two NCAA Tournament appearances in school history, tiny arena, more or less non-competitive in Atlantic Hockey
Bowling Green Falcons
Because, why not? After the Irish announce that they are moving to Hockey East, Bowling Green will be the only Division I-A program -- well, along with Alabama-Huntsville ... sad -- that will be without a conference home at the start of the 2013-14 season. Why not take on the BGSU Falcons as a travel partner with Notre Dame? Of course, there's always the Jerry York connection too, the school where York won his first title in 1984.
Pros: Long history of play in the CCHA, which has been a much stronger conference than the conference of any other expansion target, York's national title, Notre Dame travel partner, extends Hockey East footprint into Indiana and Ohio
Cons: Nearly folded the program two years ago citing economic concerns, has been fairly non-competitive in CCHA play last several years, flights from Toledo Express Airport to Bangor, Maine ain't cheap or convenient
I'll continue to stump for the Quinnipiac Bobcats, who unlike RPI, are making serious investments in its Division I-A athletics programs as a way of extending the school's brand and improving its image. Quinnipiac was added to the ECAC in part due to their promise of building a new, multipurpose sports arena, which they delivered on when the school opened the new, 3,386-seat TD Bank Sports Center in 2007. QU hasn't made a ton of noise in ECAC play and have just one NCAA Tournament appearance in school history (2002).
Pros: Better geographic fit than RPI (imo), extends Hockey East footprint into Connecticut (New York City?), school that is investing heavily in D-IA athletics
Cons: Little history, little to no success in the ECAC or the NCAAs
Wait And See
Hockey East's best bet may just be to sit back and survey the college hockey landscape over the next year. Notre Dame wouldn't start Hockey East play until the 2013-14 season, giving HEA two full seasons to make a sound strategic and financial decision on program #12. A lot can happen in that time.
Who knows? A school like Syracuse, Pittsburgh (with the NCAA's focus on expanding its presence in Pennsylvania) or UConn could find a Terry / Kim Pegula-type donor willing to invest millions in seeing their alma mater field a competitive Division I-A program. Schools like Syracuse, Pitt or UConn would help extend the HEA, and by extension college hockey's image and help grow the sport. Schools like RPI, Quinnipiac and Holy Cross do little to help build the college hockey brand nationally.
My advice to Bertagna would be to not rush this decision. Extend an invite to Notre Dame and wait a full season before moving on program #12. Oh, and let's wrap up all this conference realignment and expansion talk before the season starts ... unlike college football.